The year still looms there, like the cheese that stands alone.
It used to be 1968. That was the year that all Tigers fans would reference, sometimes happily, sometimes wistfully, sometimes pessimistically.
It seemed like we waited eons after the Tigers’ 1968 World Series triumph for that feeling to come again. But it was only 16 years, which in retrospect is nothing, really.
And there was plenty of winning between ’68 and ’84 to keep fans from losing too much faith.
The ’68 club was the core of the 1972 team that won the AL East on the next-to-last day of the season. That group got old and fizzled, leading to the lean years of 1974-75.
Mark Fidrych was more than enough of a distraction in 1976 to keep you from remembering that the Tigers were winning just 74 games.
There was another 74-win season in 1977, but we were still blinded by the idea of Fidrych, who kept trying to come back from a shoulder injury.
In 1978, Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker made their full-time debuts, and the Tigers began a stretch of .500+ baseball that would run through 1988.
And in there was 1984.
You don’t have to say much beyond the year.
And here we are, some 29 years later, and 1984 is the cheese that stands alone.
There was 1987, when the Tigers rocketed past the Toronto Blue Jays in a frantic final week of baseball that will never be forgotten in these parts. But that Tigers team was spent and fell to the Minnesota Twins in five games in the ALCS.
There was a close call in 1988, but the Tigers couldn’t quite catch the Boston Red Sox in the AL East.
Then came 1989’s bottoming out—a 103-loss season, which saw manager Sparky Anderson take a leave of absence due to exhaustion.
That 1989 season started an ugly stretch of baseball in Detroit—one that continued unabated for 16 years.
Mike Ilitch bought the team in 1992 and after a series of miscues in the front office and in the dugout following Sparky’s departure after the 1995 season, Ilitch hired a young executive named Dave Dombrowski to get the team’s act together. It was November, 2001.
Dombrowski, hired in as the team’s president and CEO, fired GM Randy Smith and manager Phil Garner one week into the 2002 season—after Dombrowski had been on the job for five months.
The Tigers bottomed out once more, to the tune of 119 losses in 2003. Dombrowski knew that was coming. He also knew that the team would be so wretched on the field, the dugout may as well have some flair.
Hence the hiring of Alan Trammell as manager for 2003.
Trammell was the sacrificial lamb—the rookie manager who couldn’t possibly have any success with the joke of a roster that he had been provided. Casey Stengel managed the 1962 Mets, you know. Funny how stupid Casey was when he didn’t have Mantle, Maris, Berra and Ford on his roster.
Trammell had Munson, Halter, Young and Witt.
Tram put in his three years, and was dispatched when Dombrowski’s roster re-tooling began to take shape.
That year was even more prominent when Trammell managed the Tigers, because he had Kirk Gibson and Lance Parrish on his coaching staff. It was maybe the only time in big league history when the coaches, even at their ages, were better players than the guys on the 25-man roster.
Tram got the ziggy after 2005, with a clubhouse in disarray and the taste of an 8-24 finish to the year lingering in everyone’s mouths.
Jim Leyland sat at the podium, just announced as the Tigers new manager in October 2005, and made a confession.
“I don’t know too many players on the roster yet, to be honest with you.”
Leyland had been out of the managing game for six years, after stepping down following one less-than-inspired year managing the Colorado Rockies in 1999.
But at the press conference announcing his hiring by the Tigers, with his friend Dombrowski smiling beside him—the pair won a world title in 1997 in Florida—Leyland declared his vim and vigor were back.
The Tigers were his home town team, to be truthful. Forget the Ohio and Pennsylvania roots. Leyland was a catcher in the low minors for the Tigers in the 1960s. He managed in the Tigers farm system in the 1970s. He was in Lakeland, FL every spring, brushing shoulders with Kaline, Freehan, Cash and Northrup as Leyland was busy managing a bunch of guys named Morris, Parrish, Whitaker and Trammell.
The Tigers were his team, in his heart.
Leyland was a Pirate for a while, as we all know. He won some divisions in Pittsburgh—three straight in fact, from 1990-92. The World Series eluded him.
Then it was on to Florida, and an unlikely and unexpected World Series victory in 1997.
The Marlins had a fire sale that began almost right after the parade, and Leyland suffered through a 108-loss season in 1998.
Then it was that year in Colorado, which Leyland is least proud of among all his years managing. He felt he stole a paycheck from the Rockies. He has admitted that he should never have taken the job—it was too soon after the Marlins debacle and his juices weren’t flowing right.
But he was rested and raring to go when Dombrowski called him and asked him to take over the Tigers.
It may not have been quite the rush to Detroit as Brady Hoke’s was to Ann Arbor when U-M Athletic Director Dave Brandon called Brady and asked him to “come home” to coach the Wolverines, but it didn’t take long for Leyland to say yes to Dombrowski, either.
Leyland said yes so fast, he barely looked at the Tigers roster.
The cheese still stood alone, but Leyland’s first year in Detroit seemed to have magic pixie dust sprinkled on it. The Tigers were 76-36 at one point, before stumbling to the finish with a 19-31 record over their final 50 games. Still, it was good enough to qualify for one of Bud Selig’s wild card berths.
The 2006 Tigers made it to the World Series, where cold bats and their pitchers’ inability to field their position resulted in a 4-1 series loss to the St. Louis Cardinals.
That magical year of Trammell, Whitaker, Parrish, Morris et al continued to haunt the Tigers.
There was the last week of 2009, which was the 180-degree opposite of that of 1987. The Tigers blew a three-game divisional lead with four games to play, and had to settle for a one-game playoff in Minnesota. It was a marvelous game, but one that makes Tigers fans shudder, and always will.
In 2011, the Tigers cruised to a divisional title and lost to Nelson Cruz, er, the Texas Rangers, in the ALCS.
In 2012, the Tigers had to fend off a pesky Chicago White Sox team just to win the division, but made it to another World Series. Again, the bats and the base running went cold, and the San Francisco Giants swept the Tigers.
In 2013, the Tigers kept the Cleveland Indians at arm’s length and made it to another LCS—their third straight. But, as Leyland said more than once at his retirement press conference on Monday, the Tigers “let one get away” against the Red Sox. And, he said, it hurt him deeply.
Jim Leyland had eight years as Tigers manager. In only one of them did the team fail to reach the .500 standard. Three times they won their division. Twice they won the American League pennant.
In the 17 years prior to Leyland’s arrival, the Tigers had exactly one winning record. Four times in those 17 years, they lost more than 100 games.
It rankles some to say that Jim Leyland made baseball relevant again in Detroit. Because, after all, the goal isn’t to be relevant—it’s to win the whole shebang.
It also rankles them because the Tigers’ success since Leyland was hired is largely due to the magic wand of Dombrowski, whose trades and free agent signings have given Leyland the tools any manager needs to be successful. Those tools all have one thing in common: talent.
Any knucklehead could have managed the Tigers with the rosters Leyland was given, and won as much as he did. Right?
We’ll never know for sure, mainly because Leyland isn’t a knucklehead. He’s a grizzled baseball guy who has stood up to the likes of Barry Bonds and Bobby Bonilla, who has given confidence to the Don Kellys of the world and who has presided over a clubhouse that the players police themselves and which has had hardly any fracturing.
Leyland was like Chuck Daly that way. Leyland expected his players to be grown men and act as such. It has helped that the Tigers have made it a habit of employing players who are pretty darn good guys—men of character and dignity. Carlos Guillen comes to mind.
The team has also had lots of veterans in the clubhouse during Leyland’s tenure, which doesn’t hurt. It’s why the manager has felt it best to keep out of the players’ sanctuary, for the most part.
Leyland didn’t always push the right buttons, but what manager does? He was slave to pitch counts. He wasn’t particularly aggressive or creative. The move of Jhonny Peralta to left field, when it comes to Leyland, was almost off the charts. It was Mickey Stanley to shortstop-ish.
But the players adored him. And when players like the manager, they tend to play better. That’s a fact.
It still stands alone. Leyland wasn’t able to rip that year from the wall. It’s 29 years and counting. That gap makes the 1968-84 wait seem like nothing.
Leyland, thanks to the emergence of the Internet and talk radio, was nitpicked and criticized more than any Tigers manager prior to him, combined.
But would we have nitpicked and criticized, if the team was dreadful?
Isiah Thomas, the great Pistons point guard, once said that fans don’t boo nobodies.
Translated: only the irrelevant escape feeling the heat.
The very fact that Jim Leyland, in his eight years managing the Tigers, faced so much criticism, is actually a testament to the man.
Leyland started winning as soon as he got to Detroit, and except for 2008, he never really stopped.
We started caring about the Tigers again when he arrived, and we have never really stopped.
Like him or not, that much is irrefutable.